The authors of an Oct 2019 paper in Behavioral Public Policy did a social experiment in which respondents (in USA) were given two versions of two real-life controversies involving public figures. Approximately half of the participants read a story that made it appear as if the person had apologized, while the rest were led to believe that the individual had stood firm.
In the first experiment, where the public figure was a politician, hearing that he had apologized for his comments on civil rights did not change whether respondents were less likely to vote for him. Essentially, had he not apologized, he would have done as well!
In the second experiment, when presented with two versions of the controversy surrounding Larry Summers and his comments about women scientists and engineers, liberals and females were more likely to say that he should have faced negative consequences for his statement when presented with his apology (the effects of the apology on groups other than liberals and women were smaller or neutral).
So net net, when a prominent figure apologizes for a controversial statement, public in general is either unaffected or becomes more likely to desire that the he/she be punished! If you are a public figure – don’t apologize; doesn’t work!
Having a rough day basically means the same as having a bad day, right? So does it matter how one says it? Apparently, yes. Brain-scans have illustrated that using metaphors / similes in sentences can make us feel different, than possible without them.
When participants in one study read the words ‘he had a rough day’, their neural regions involved in feeling textures became more activated, compared with those who just read ‘he had a bad day’.
In another study, those who read ‘she shouldered the burden’ had neural regions associated with bodily movement activated more than when they read ‘she carried the burden’.”
I learnt about this while reading The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr, and thought it was worth documenting here as part of my LHE series. That’s it – that’s the whole post. I hope this insight is useful to you when you frame a sentence next.
Did you know that the entire sugar industry in the Americas, until the mid-nineteenth century, was based on slavery?
Slaves were acquired from Africa and transported to the Americas to be exchanged for sugar. Sugar was then exported to England (and other parts of Europe). From there, the ships would carry goods to be exchanged for slaves in Africa. And then from Africa, the slaves were transported to America (the Caribbean) to work on sugar plantations. This became known as the ‘Triangle Trade’.”
I found out about this while reading Sugar: A Global History by Andrew F. Smith. The way we consume sugar all the time, even when it’s bad for our health*, fascinates me. And that’s why I felt like digging up some history books on this topic (haven’t found any worth recommending).
Honey, by the way is a relatively healthier option compared to refined sugar. But as we all read in news this week, most brands have apparently been cheating us!
Let me share one more history trivia (gathered from the same book). It’s about tea.
A random Bri-Tea-sh trivia!
During mid 17th century in England, tea was not common in houses (it was expensive). The well-to-do would visit coffee-houses to have tea there (same for coffee / chocolate). The lower classes would typically drink beer in taverns.
Only once the British East India Company began to import tea in bulk (annual imports increased from just a little over hundred thousand Kg in 1725 to almost 11 million Kg in 1800), did the price of tea fall below that of chocolate and coffee, and it became affordable for the middle class. So yeah, that’s how tea became England’s hot beverage of choice!
Now, here’s a quick question: for the not-so-well-to-do Britishers of the 18th century, what was their preferred sweetener for tea / coffee? Honey or sugar?
Right answer: Honey.
Yes, back then, honey was six to ten times cheaper than sugar!. Of course with time, the price of sugar kept falling (thanks to cheap slave labour / triangle trade) and its consumption rose from 2 kg per capita in early 1700 to 10 Kg per capita by beginning of 1800.
How much is the sugar consumption in UK today? Around 30 Kg per capita. What about India? 20. Not so sweet, right? That’s it – that was the blog.
*A quick summary of how sugar damages your health (this is not from the book; this is just basic knowledge that I have via reading, and discussions with folks from the fitness field).
Your body needs both calories and nutrients, for all the internal organs and muscles and other such things to be healthy and functional. Now technically you can consume pure sugar for calories and take all the required nutrients from different supplements but the thing with nutrients is that, there are just too many of them!
So it’s pretty much impossible to consume all that’s needed by your body, through tablets. The best and easiest and cheapest and full-proof way to supply all kinds of nutrients to your body is to just eat food that has less sugar (or carb – which gets converted to sugar) and more nutrients (vegetables > whole grain rice and wheat > maida > sugar).
When your body converts the vegetable you eat to sugar, it also ends up absorbing all the nutrients in that vegetable and you stay healthy. But when you eat just sugar, you end up providing calories to your body without nutrients. See the issue?
Even when you eat both sugar and vegetable, your body will ignore the vegetable and rather take the calories from sugar directly (nobody wants to work hard, you see). So the vegetable gets wasted. And doing this as a habit (offering the option of sugar to your body) leads you on a path of cumulative nutrient deficiency. Over time, your organs get unhealthy and you die. So yeah, in short, this is the primary way sugar fucks you up. There are other ways it harms too (by making you diabetic for example), but let that be for some other time!
Brandolini’s principle states that ‘the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than [that needed] to produce it’. But what does that have to do with vaccines? Read on!
I found this out while reading an interesting book – Calling Bullshit – by Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West.
Within the field of medicine, Brandolini’s principle is exemplified by the pernicious falsehood that vaccines cause autism.
Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West – Calling Bullshit
I had to look up the meaning of pernicious by the way! 😀 It means something that is highly injurious or has destructive consequences. Lovely word – can be used to describe most of BJP’s policies! 😛
Anyway so I looked at data from USA and even when only a small percentage of the overall population seems to be definitive about vaccination causing autism in children, way many are ‘unsure’!
Look at the below graph that I created from a Gallup survey data. Only post-grads are mostly clear that vaccines don’t cause autism (longest yellow bar); next best are 18-29 year olds.
The trend is even bad – while currently 10% of U.S. adults believe vaccines cause autism in children, in 2015 only 6% used to.
The Calling Bullshit book tells us that this misinformation about vaccines persists, due in large part, to a shockingly poor 1998 study published in The Lancet by British physician Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues.
THE WAKEFIELD FRAUD
There is a whole Wiki article on this scandal if you are interested, but let me quickly share what I read about it in the book, and how it connects to the Brandolini’s principle.
Anyway, back to Wakefield’s paper in The Lancet. It galvanized the contemporary “antivax” movement, created a remarkably enduring fear of vaccines, and contributed to the resurgence of measles around the world.
After millions of dollars and countless research hours devoted to checking and rechecking the Wakefield study, today it is one of the most utterly and incontrovertibly discredited studies done in the scientific world.
2004 – ten co-authors of the paper formally retracted the “interpretations” section; the same year, Wakefield was found guilty of serious professional misconduct by Britain’s General Medical Council and his license to practice medicine in the UK was revoked.
2010 – the paper was fully retracted by The Lancet.
2011 – British Medical Journal editor in chief Fiona Godlee formally declared the original study to be a fraud, and argued that there must have been intent to deceive; mere incompetence could not explain the numerous issues surrounding the paper.
Wakefield eventually directed a documentary titled Vaxxed, which alleged that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was covering up safety problems surrounding vaccines. The film received a large amount of press attention and reinvigorated the vaccine scare.
Despite all the findings against Wakefield and the crushing avalanche of evidence against his hypothesis, Wakefield retains credibility with a segment of the public, and unfounded fears about a vaccine-autism link persist.
Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West – Calling Bullshit
What did this intentional misleading lead to? The US, which had nearly eliminated measles entirely, now suffers large outbreaks on an annual basis. Other diseases such as mumps and whooping cough (pertussis) are making a comeback.
So why has it been so hard to debunk the rumors of a connection between vaccines and autism?
This is Brandolini’s principle at work – explain the authors of Calling Bullshit. Researchers have to invest vastly more time to debunk Wakefield’s arguments than he did to produce them in the first place.
Alright, that’s the end of the story. What else comes to your mind when you think of Brandolini’s principle? Let me know!
I was reading a pre-history book – Early Indians by Tony Joseph – when I stumbled upon the below paragraph.
If you want to get as close as possible to the lives of the first modern humans in India, one of the best places to go to is Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh’s Raisen district, about forty-five kilometres from the state capital, Bhopal.
Tony Joseph, Early Indians
The reason I got so excited about it was that just few weeks ago, my wife and I had named one of threada.in dresses, the Bhimbetka Dress! I had never heard of Bhimbetka before!
threada (pronounced thread-aa) is her clothing brand btw. I just help her in marketing and stuff, and of course photography and illustration. Anyway, back to the caves. Below is a photograph of one of the caves at Bhimbetka (sourced from Wikipedia). How old do you think these line-drawings (technical word is petroglyph) are?
Since I have never been to this place myself, let me borrow Joseph’s description to share more about these caves and the drawings / paintings we see there.
The caves were first occupied some 100,000 years ago! Ever since, the area has never lain vacant for too long.
The paintings are not well-dated, so it is quite likely that most of them, though not all, were made within the last few thousand years, rather than many tens of thousands of years ago. But there are a few petroglyphs that could be the earliest evidence of art created by members of the Homo species anywhere in the world – a few perfect cupules (small cup-like depressions) with lines beside them.
The location itself deserves a mention too. The overall area is spread over seven hills that are full of naturally occurring rock shelters. The elevation of the hills makes it possible for the residents to keep track of who is approaching them: food or predator, nilgai or leopard!
There are perennial springs, creeks and streams filled with fish; plenty of fruits, tubers and roots; deer, boar and hare; and as many quartzite rocks as you need to make all the tools you want.
Now here’s the big question – even when we know that the caves were first occupied about 100,000 years ago, do we know exactly when the first modern humans set foot in Bhimbetka (or, for that matter, in India)?
The answer to the above question is pretty much what the book Early Indians explores. Read it if you want to (I am yet to finish it – there is a lot of info in there and I am not really a pre-history reader as such, so going slow – this is probably the first book in this genre that I have picked up).
Is there any pre-history book that you want to recommend? Do let me know! Let me end this post with an overtly dramatic 7 min History channel video on Bhimbetka (it’s in Hindi though).
#1 – The mindset needs to shift from focusing excessively on the curriculum.
The new National Education Policy (NEP) of India acknowledges that ‘learning-gap’ is a critical problem. In many places, Grade 5 children are at Grade 2 level, but they are taught as if that doesn’t make a difference. There is an overemphasis on completing the entire curriculum.
As per Banerjee, the NEP also recognizes the importance of basic skills of reading and numeracy, but they have not been made explicit enough.
Let’s forget about infrastructure investments for now – testing children on basic competencies needs more focus.
On the point of testing, let me share the story of a startup that I created some time back. They focus on the right way for teachers to test whether a child has really grasped a concept (the startup calls their service ‘Thinking Classrooms’). Simple but efficient. Also, this ‘testing’ can be done in every class instead of waiting for exams to find out what the children have learnt.
#2 – There is evidence to show that enough people don’t know about the benefits of education.
This was a pretty surprising insight for me (and I guess for you too). These insights are coming from a recent large scale study done by a newly formed Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel by World Bank. Banerjee is a panel member.
The panel waded through the several hundred interventions tried around the world to improve learning outcomes and then identified the most cost-effective ones. Here’s the full report if you want to check that out. The best and most credible ‘buys’ that have been identified, can be replicated by other countries – is the hope and intention.
Only after parents understand the benefits (which many don’t), they alter their behaviour in a manner that helps improve learning outcomes for the child.
#3 – India’s Right to Education (RTE) policy doesn’t care much about ‘outcomes’
It is almost exclusively focused on the size of playgrounds, classrooms etc. – trying to dictate brick and mortar standards for the schools instead of focusing on verifiable learning outcomes.
There is another major issue with implementing a super important aspect of RTE – getting underprivileged children to access good schools. I created the below story some time back to show how some folks are trying to solve this problem by sheer persistence.
#4 – Handing out tablets, computers and other similar devices to students by Govt. is a “bad buy”
ICT (Information & Communications Tech), unless you combine it with the right pedagogical tools, is pointless – shares Banerjee. There are things ICT can help with, but in a thought-out manner. Just handing out laptops or tablets with little or no guidance will probably not yield any great strides in learning.
Five years ago, I was flown to a village in Gujarat to show how ICICI bank was helping a village digitalize (so that I could bring out the story via my 3MS). I did notice a similar problem there as far as using ‘tech’ in the village school went. Digital devices had been issued to the village school – but it all looked a bit superficial. Watch below?
Banerjee shares that one of the interventions tried in Rajasthan – MindSpark (run by a private company), has proved effective with science and math learning, where it first identifies the stage at which the child is and then uses a personalized learning journey to take them to the next level.
#5 – India has an ‘elitist mindset’ issue – one of the primary reasons why so many children are left behind
A central education minister once told me that the idea that no child should be left behind is not something he sympathies with.
A few privileged kids do well but the rest fall behind. The Indian education system often destroys the confidence of children in their own abilities – claims Banerjee. This reminds me of my story on Arvind Gupta – the below film literally opens with a very similar line about schools killing some important things in children.
THE VEGETABLE SELLER EXPERIMENT
Abhijit Banerjee and team conducted a small experiment in some markets in Delhi and Kolkata among young children selling vegetables. They had shoppers buying a few vegetables from each child in varying quantities. Almost all the children reverted with the exact change, meaning they were managing to multiply, total up and subtract within a few seconds. They were doing math, doing it mentally, and almost instantaneously and perfectly.
But when similar problems were given to children in a Delhi government school (incidentally, better than most other government schools), they had a hard time solving. The moment children start thinking they have to solve a math problem, they lose their confidence.
Talking about Delhi Govt. schools – below is a story I documented few years ago to show how they have been improving, year after year. The Education Alliance – a Delhi based non-profit has played a major role behind the transformation of many Govt. schools in Delhi by making it easier for non-profits to work with government.
#6 – India can learn a lot from Vietnam
Vietnam is a stellar example of a country that’s made a lot of progress in ensuring that no child is left behind. People tend to think Vietnam is a much smaller country than India, but Vietnam is like Bihar, with a population of around 100 million. And since many of the Indian states are much smaller than Vietnam, there’s no reason why every Indian state cannot replicate Vietnam’s success.
Many of the good buys identified in the report have in fact been tried in India. Some have worked but have not been fully implemented.
For instance, it is now understood that access to schooling is not a problem for younger kids – there are private and public schools that are easily accessible in villages. But for older children, especially girls, access to high schools can be a problem. In Bihar, the government’s initiative of offering bicycles to girls helped tremendously in this regard.
So yeah, these were the six insights that I gained from reading up the interview. Hope this was useful and you learnt something new. Also, do watch at least one of the films shared here – they are nice – you will like what you see.
Now some of you may instinctively agree with her line of thought. I would like you guys to hold on to your instinct and read my blog with an open mind to understand why we fall for this trap that sounds logical in our head – but is driven more from irritation than logic, and is often the starting point of migrant hatred / fear.
In short what a local ends up saying is – ‘if you have so much of problem, fuck off. Nobody asked you to move in anyway’. Before I explain the problem with this logic, let me share a nice video that I made about Chennai few years ago. A lot of response to this video (you can go read the comment section on Youtube) had a similar problem.
Many who you see speaking in the above video were born and brought up in Chennai itself (including some Tamils). We didn’t mention this fact in the video. And if you don’t watch the whole thing, it may look like (especially to a local Chennaite) that ‘outsiders’ are unnecessarily cribbing about a ‘great’ city and so you will find several comments on the same line – ‘if you have so much of problem, fuck off. Nobody asked you to move in anyway’.
Here’s the logical error with such annoyance / hatred – the presumptuous illusion of choice!
Just because someone has moved to a city does not mean they had the choice to work anywhere in India. Some may have that choice, most don’t! Other than job, many move simply because of marriage. Even data supports this. The thing is, shittiniess / awesomeness of a city is not the most important factor basis which people relocate and for a vast majority, that’s hardly a choice!
Here’s the second problem with such ‘fuck off’ responses – they attack only those who are not originally from the city. If you are from the city, then well, what can they be told – they apparently don’t have a ‘choice’ because they are ‘originally’ from the place. But like really? You can’t move out of Delhi just because you were born in the city? Ask around who have been buying houses after houses in Goa!
Such kind of complaints by locals, sugar-coated with logic, are essentially an expression of annoyance. They might fail the logic-test but they make the person bitching about outsiders complaining about ‘their’ city feel good. But hey, I have a news. That is exactly why anyone complains!
We complain (those of us who do) because complaining often releases stress.
It’s an emotional response to a situation. Of course, if all that we do is complain all the time about everything, then eventually we may get depressed and all that but it is one thing to be reminded of the negative effect of over-complaining and a totally different thing to be told to ‘not complain’ because ‘hey you have a choice’.
I will not blame Puja though. It is extremely easy to fall for this trap and use pseudo-logic to make the comment sensible in one’s head. It often originates from lack of empathy. When you have less empathy to relate to why an outsider complains about the city they have moved to, instead of viewing the situation as a ‘feeling’ response of the person, you end up viewing it as an ‘attack’ on your own identity. And when you feel attacked, you fight back. You tell them to go back to where they came from, or find some other city. The illusion of choice doesn’t feel like illusion at all. Some may view such a nativist rant as benign but there’s a big problem with letting it go unchecked.
When we let this nativist instinct take over, it doesn’t take much for the same argument to gradually move from a passive-aggressive tweet like Puja’s to severe case of hatred – often fueled by politicians who are masters at the art of exploiting the Us Vs. them fear.
Hostility – whether experienced by a group or an individual – stems from the same principles: seeing the adversary as wrong or bad, and the self as right and good. In either case, the aggressor shows the same “thinking disorder”: construing the facts in his favor, exaggerating the supposed transgression, and attributing malice to the opposition.
Aaron T. Beck – Prisoners of Hate
The reality is that, you will find people from Delhi working in Chennai complaining about Chennai and you will also find people from Chennai working in Delhi, complaining about Delhi. People are the same. You will obviously also have many who love their new city. There are just all sorts of people and all of them have the right to exist and be respected without being asked to fuck off (in however polite way) by any dick-acting local.
PS: Puja’s book is pretty nice and insightful – do check it out.
Researchers at the University of Zurich recruited a bunch of bankers and randomly split them into two groups.
Both groups were asked to flip a coin ten times and report the outcomes online. If they got more than a threshold number of heads (or tails) they were told they would get twenty Swiss francs (about 20 USD) for each extra head (or tail) they reported. Nobody was going to check whether or not they reported accurately, which created a very strong incentive to cheat.
But before the experiment began, one group was asked about their favorite leisure activity, highlighting their role as a “regular” person, and the other group was asked questions about their role as a banker, effectively highlighting their “banker identity”.
This is what happened in the end – the estimated cheating rate went from 3% for those thinking of themselves as regular people to 16% for those thinking of themselves as bankers! Crazy, right?
Being reminded of our profession seems to bring out a different moral self.
Let’s now come to India – where a similar experiment was done, but with college students.
The students were asked to privately roll a die 42 times and record what numbers they got each time. The reward was 50 paise if the die showed one, one rupee for a two, one and a half rupees for a three, and so on.
Students were free to lie about the numbers they rolled. Roughly the same proportion as in Switzerland did lie. But here’s the difference – while those who were reminded of their identity as bankers cheated more in Switzerland, in India students planning to work for the government cheated more (this is what this experiment was designed to test).
In contrast, when the study was again replicated in Denmark, which is justifiably proud of its social sector, researchers found the exact opposite as in India: those planning to join the government were much less likely to cheat!
That’s it – wanted to note down these insights as a stand-alone clue to human nature, as part of my Learnings from Human Experiments series. Also felt like drawing a bit – just for fun. Will keep adding such short experiment based posts, whenever I stumble upon them. Hope you learnt something.
This is a lie because there is no data which says what was the black money in 2016 and what it is now – so nobody can say black money has reduced.
In a written reply tabled in the Parliament in Dec 2016, the then Finance Minister had admitted, “There is no official estimation of the amount of black money either before or after the government’s decision of 08 Nov 2016…”
Now there are other things for which we do have data. Let’s talk about the issue of counterfeit currency for example. PM Modi had claimed that demonetization would solve it (without any basis). It has not been solved.
Don’t forget, INR ~8,000 crore was spent in 2016-17 just on printing new notes (followed by ~5,000 crore a year after that). For what? A marketing gimmick!
Also let’s not forget that curbing terrorism was also a reason PM Modi had provided for justifying overnight demonetization.
What happened? See for yourself.
Before I end this post, let me sum up why black money could never have been solved by demonetization anyway (the Govt. never presented any study whatsoever to justify the move – it was an insensitive illogical idea from the beginning).
The thing is – even when nobody really knows what is the total unaccounted for income in India, almost every estimate acknowledges that a very small portion of it (~1%) is in cash. Majority of the cash that exists is accounted for. So demonetization by design was a move to harass majority of Indians by targeting less than 1% of black income. In what world is this justified? More than 99.3% of all the demonetized note came back to the banking system!
There is a reason, almost nowhere in the world, ‘demonetization’ is ever used for this purpose! Except of course, if you have the confidence to ‘market’ the move as path-breaking initiative to end corruption!
Other than the harassment that most Indians faced while getting their notes exchanged (some died too) and the unnecessary work that our bankers had to do, week after week – demonetization also had some other far-fetched consequences. It looks like it even caused increase in infant mortality rate!
What about the move towards digital payments?
I will make two comments. The night demonetization was announced, PM Modi did not even talk about digital payments as a reason to justify torturing the entire country. Two, India did not become digital overnight anyway as the below chart shows.
If you scroll back up and look at the existing cash in the economy (much more than was in 2016), it becomes obvious that one does not need to take away cash from the system for digital payments to work and grow. There is not a single economist who has ever claimed that India wouldn’t have made the growth in UPI transactions without demonetization. On the contrary, many studies later found the damage that the move did to the economy itself.
Dear PM, show some shame, acknowledge the mistake and move on? Or am I missing something?
I read a very interesting and insightful book called How Democracies Die. Levitsky & Ziblatt (the authors) have analysed democracies across the globe to understand when a leader turns authoritarian, often leading to collapse of democracy. The erosion of democracy takes place piecemeal, often in baby steps.
Let me share this chart for you to get a sense of how fragile a democratic system can really be.
Let me quickly explain the three terms mentioned in the above table – a. ‘capturing referees’, b. ‘sidelining players’ and c. ‘changing rules’.
A. CAPTURING REFEREES
It means hijacking institutions that hold the govt. accountable (intelligence agencies, courts). It offers a powerful weapon, allowing the government to selectively enforce the law, punishing opponents while protecting allies.
By default, the judicial system, law enforcement bodies, and intelligence, tax, and regulatory agencies are designed to serve as neutral arbiters. But if such agencies are controlled by loyalists, they could serve a would-be dictator’s aims.
Tax authorities may be used to target rival politicians, businesses, and media outlets. The police can crack down on opposition protest while tolerating acts of violence by pro-government thugs.
B. SIDELINING PLAYERS
Most contemporary autocracies do not wipe out all traces of dissent, as Mussolini did in fascist Italy or Fidel Castro did in communist Cuba. What they usually do is – ensure that key players – anyone capable of really hurting the government – are sidelined, hobbled, or bribed into throwing the game.
Key players might include opposition politicians, business leaders who finance the opposition, major media outlets, and in some cases, religious or other cultural figures who enjoy a certain public moral standing.
The Fujimori government in Peru was masterful at buying off its critics, particularly those in media. By the late 1990s, every major television network, several daily newspapers, and popular tabloid papers were on the government’s payroll.
Players who cannot be bought must be weakened. Whereas old-school dictators often jailed, exiled, or even killed their rivals, contemporary autocrats tend to hide their repression behind a veneer of legality.
Under Perón (Argentina), opposition leader Ricardo Balbín was imprisoned for “disrespecting” the president during an election campaign. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad used a politically loyal police force and a packed judiciary to investigate, arrest, and imprison his leading rival, Anwar Ibrahim, on sodomy charges in the late 1990s.
Governments may also use their control of referees to legally sidline the opposition media, often through libel or defamation suits.
In Russia, after Vladimir Gusinsky’s independent NTV television network earned a reputation as a “pain in the neck,” the Putin government unleashed the tax authorities on Gusinsky, arresting him for “financial misappropriation.” Gusinsky was offered “a deal straight out of a bad Mafia movie: give up NTV in exchange for freedom.” He took the deal, turned NTV over to the giant government-controlled energy company, Gazprom, and fled the country.
As key media outlets are assaulted, others grow wary and begin to practice self-censorship. When the Chávez government stepped up its attacks in the mid-2000s, one of the country’s largest television networks, Venevisión, decided to stop covering politics. Morning talk shows were replaced with astrology programs, and soap operas took precedence over evening news programs.
Finally, elected autocrats often try to silence cultural figures – artists, intellectuals, pop stars, athletes. Usually, however, governments prefer to co-opt popular cultural figures or reach a mutual accommodation with them, allowing them to continue their work as long as they stay out of politics.
C. CHANGING RULES
This essentially means somehow changing the Constitution itself. Authoritarians seeking to consolidate their power often reform the constitution, the electoral system, and other institutions in ways that disadvantage or weaken the opposition, in effect tilting the playing field against their rivals. These reforms are often carried out under the guise of some public good, while in reality they are stacking the deck in favor of incumbents. And guess what helps them most – a crisis situation.
For demagogues hemmed in by constitutional constraints, a crisis represents an opportunity to begin to dismantle the inconvenient and sometimes threatening checks and balances that come with democratic politics.
Elected autocrats often need crises – external threats offer them a chance to break free, both swiftly and, very often, “legally”.
Crisis are hard to predict, but their political consequences are not. They facilitate the concentration, and very often, abuse of power. Given that we have a crisis situation right now, had Modi been like Hitler, the damage to democracy could have been much worse.
Major security crises – wars or large-scale terrorist attacks – are political game changers. Almost invariably, they increase support for the government. Citizens become more likely to tolerate, and even endorse, authoritarian measures when they fear for their security. In the aftermath of September 11, President Bush saw his approval rating soar from 53% to 90%. Citizens are also more likely to tolerate – and even support – authoritarian measures when they fear their own safety.
The book – How Democracies Die – also talks about 4 litmus tests that can hep identify any authoritarian leader.
As per the authors, we should worry when a politician
rejects, in words or actions, the democratic rules of the game (and this is why Modi is not like Hitler)
denies the legitimacy of opponents
tolerates or encourages violence (this is where if not Modi himself, his party is mildly like Hitler)
indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media (again – why BJP is like Hitler).
A politician who meets even one of these criteria is a cause for concern.
Let me also share five more insights that the book offers (have contextualized it with Indian political examples, where I could).
1. Most authoritarians leaders are popular rank outsiders who have little patience with democracy.
In Latin America, of all 15 presidents elected in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela between 1990 and 2012, five were populist outsiders: Alberto Fujimori, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, Lucio Gutiérrez and Rafael Correa. All five ended up weakening democratic institutions.
When populists win elections, they often assault democratic institutions.
Democracy is grinding work – it requires negotiation, compromise and concessions. But would-be authoritarians have little patience with the day-to-day politics of the democracy (and in this regard, Modi is unlike Hitler; the BJP doesn’t only understand the politics that it needs to play but works towards it diligently).
In India, the hyper liberals don’t get the difference between being a Hitler and Modi. Modi for one, is not a rank outsider. Bhakts (and even some centrists) on the other hand, fail to understand that just because Modi is not exactly like Hitler, does not mean he is all good. They take the comparison ‘literally’ and start pointing out the differences. What matters is the similarity – and that’s what is scary and that is what we should watch out for.
Let me make a quick note on most arguments around comparison of two people / entities / countries / anything.
Those who don’t like the comparison get obsessed with the difference and only want to focus on why the comparison doesn’t make sense (‘you are comparing apples with oranges’). Of course no two people / entities / countries / anything are ‘the same’. Apples and oranges are different and yet in many contexts, it makes sense to compare them. It’s unwise to willfully ignore the intent behind any comparison – which is to appreciate the similarity! When we try to see the similarity between Modi and Hitler (the short-code I am using to denote an authoritarian leader), we become better prepared to watch out for when the government ends up pushing things too far off the line where democracy ends. If we keep obsessing about how they are not the same, we won’t gain much (that is the job of Govt. mouthpieces like Arnab Goswami; not citizens).
Ok now, carrying on with four more insights from the book.
2. Politicians do not always reveal the full scale of their authoritarianism before reaching power.
Hungarian PM Viktor Orban (and his party) began as a liberal democrat in the late 1980s and in his first stint as PM (1998-2002) he governed democratically. His autocratic about face in 2010 was a genuine surprise. The 2011 constitutional changes enacted under his leadership were, in particular, accused of centralizing legislative and executive power, curbing civil liberties, restricting freedom of speech, and weakening the Constitutional Court and judiciary. He has been in power since then.
3. Democracy requires ‘gate-keepers’ to do their job.
We like to believe the fate of the government lies in the hands of its citizens. As per the authors, this view is wrong. Political parties are democracies’ gatekeepers.
Collective abdication – the transfer of authority to a leader who threatens democracy – usually flows from one of two sources.
the misguided belief that an authoritarian can be controlled or tamed.
ideological collusion – the authoritarian’s agenda overlaps sufficiently with that of mainstream politicians that abdication is desirable, or at least preferable to the alternatives.
Trump’s rise to presidency in 2016 is a good example of consequence of ineffective gatekeeping.
Some politicians did realize the problem and did their bit. For example, in March 2016, former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave a high-profile speech describing Trump as a danger to both the Republican Party and the country. Echoing Ronald Reagan’s 1964 “A Time for Choosing” speech, Romney declared that Trump was a “fraud” who had “neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president.”
Other party elders, including 2008 presidential candidate John McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham, had warned against Trump too.
But the sad fact is that the #NeverTrump movement was always more talk than action. In reality, the primary system had left Republican leaders virtually weaponless to halt Trump’s rise (the book explains this in detail). The barrage of attacks had little impact and possibly even backfired where it counted: the voting booth.
4. Polarization can destroy democratic norms – the process often begins with words.
Fujinori (Peru) called his critics “enemies” and “traitors”. Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi attacked judges who ruled against him as “communist”.
Status anxiety – when a groups’ social status, identity, and sense of belonging are perceived to be under existential threat – leads to a style of politics that is “overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic”. A demagogue’s initial rise to power tends to polarize society, creating a climate of panic, hostility, and mutual distrust (Modi is like Hiter in this aspect).
If the public comes to share the view that opponents are linked to terrorism and the media are spreading lies, it becomes easier to justify taking actions against them.
Some polarization is healthy – even necessary – for democracy. But when socioeconomic, racial, or religious differences give rise to extreme partisanship, in which societies sort themselves into political camps whose worldviews are not just different but mutually exclusive, toleration becomes harder to sustain. As mutual toleration disappears, politicians grow tempted to abandon forbearance (see point 5 below) and try to win at all costs.
Because of polarization, Chileans who had long prided themselves on being South America’s most stable democracy, succumbed to dictatorship that lasted for seventeen years!
In the US, in 1798, the Federalists passed the Sedition Act, which, though purportedly criminalizing false statements against the government, was so vague that it virtually criminalized criticism of the government.
When norms of mutual toleration are weak, democracy is hard to sustain. If we view our rivals as a dangerous threat, we have much to fear if they are elected. We may decide to employ any means necessary to defeat them – and therein lies a justification for authoritarian measures. Politicians who are tagged as criminal or subversive may be jailed; governments deemed to pose a threat to the nation may be overthrown.
In just about every case of democratic breakdown we have studied, would-be authoritarians – from Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini in interwar Europe to Marcos, Castro, and Pinochet during the Cold War to Putin, Chávez, and Erdogan most recently – have justified their consolidation of power by labeling their opponents as an existential threat.
How Democracies Die
5. ‘Forbearance’ – and why it matters
Much before Trump, the USA faced threat to democratic norms under President Roosevelt who subscribed to what he called the stewardship theory of the presidency – all executive actions are allowed unless expressly prohibited by law.
His use of executive orders – more than 3,000 during his presidency, averaging more than 300 a year – was unmatched at the time or since.
Forbearance is the exact opposite. It means “patient self-control; restraint and tolerance,” or “the action of restraining from exercising a legal right.
Prior to the 1973 coup, Chile had been Latin America’s oldest and most successful democracy, sustained by vibrant democratic norms. It was lack of forbearance that lead to fall of democracy.
One may think of democracy as a game that we want to keep playing indefinitely. To ensure future rounds of the game, players must refrain from either incapacitating the other team or antagonizing them to such a degree, that they refuse to play again tomorrow. If one’s rivals quit, there can be no future games.
The cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.
Hope you learnt something / gained some insights. And if this topic interests you, do pick up the book.